A quest for 'normalcy' as millions try to put their lives back together after Sandy

A quest for 'normalcy' as millions try to put their lives back together after Sandy

POSTED: Saturday, November 3, 2012 - 8:00pm

UPDATED: Saturday, November 3, 2012 - 8:04pm

As they cleaned up drenched debris, waited in hours-long lines for gas and coped with yet another day without power, the goal Saturday for millions in New York and New Jersey was simple -- to inch a few steps closer to normal.

There were some positive signs. The number of customers without power in the wake of Superstorm Sandy fell by over a million in 24 hours, to about 2.4 million Saturday afternoon. Gas stations were filling up once more with millions of gallons of gas -- some of it compliments of the federal government and, in other cases, a rival company. And with travel bans lifting, more residents of places like Atlantic and Cape May counties in New Jersey were finally being allowed to return home.

"We need to continue to focus now on the next phase -- returning to normalcy," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said.

That's all Pankaj Purohit wants. But the Jersey City resident's patience is wearing thin after five days without electricity. An e-mail from his utility said it might take several more days before power is restored even as temperatures plunge into the 30s at night.

His apartment building flooded with 5 feet of water, Purohit said his family and his dog moved in with a friend who has electricity. Two other families are also taking shelter at the house.

"For me, until there is power, I cannot get back to normal life," he said early Saturday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said restoring electricity is the top priority, reiterating Saturday that his state will hold utilities accountable if they weren't prepared for Sandy. More than 835,000 customers were in the dark statewide by mid-afternoon.

One of the state's top utilities, Con Edison, has restored power to all but 270,000 of its initially 940,000 customers affected by Sandy, Senior Vice President John Miksad said. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised that company, while blasting the Long Island Power Authority -- which services the Rockaway peninsula in the borough of Queens -- for not having "acted aggressively enough."

"We realize that LIPA has outages throughout Long Island, but the Rockaways were the hardest hit by the storm," he said, adding that the utility indicated it could take two weeks to restore power there. "When it comes to prioritizing resources, we think they should be first in line. So far that has not appeared to be the case, and that is certainly not acceptable."

LIPA did not immediately respond Saturday evening to CNN requests for comment on the mayor's criticism.

Cold weather is a growing concern in places without power. Bloomberg said he'd be surprised if temperatures in the Rockaways would get out of the 40s, warning people to guard against hypothermia and find someplace warm to stay if possible.

Both he and Cuomo, meanwhile, lavished praise on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for restoring 80% of subway services in New York City. The mayor said it should be up to 90% by Sunday.

"Not only did they try hard, but they got it done," Cuomo said.

Powering cars and trucks is another issue, as evidenced by long lines at gas stations around the region.

Christie noted that about 70% of gas stations from Interstate 195 and points north weren't operating Saturday -- not necessarily because they did not have gas, but because they couldn't pump it due to power outages. (By comparison, about 95% of stations south of Interstate 195 were working, he said.)

Yet there's been a concerted effort in recent days to address the gas shortage.

The federal government announced Friday night that it would deliver 12 million gallons of unleaded gas and 10 million gallons of diesel to dispense around the hard-hit region. Such fuel had already arrived at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and was being shipped out to stations, Christie said Saturday.

The governor also singled out Hess, based in Woodbridge, New Jersey, for distributing gas to rival companies whose stations had run dry.

"That's what New Jersey is all about," he said.

Drivers in New York City and Long Island, meanwhile, were able beginning Saturday to fill up directly from 5,000-gallon fuel trucks moving around the area.

In another move to relieve fuel shortages, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a temporary waiver of the Jones Act, allowing oil tankers from the Gulf of Mexico to enter northeastern ports.

The U.S. Energy Administration reported significant progress. Whereas there was no gas in 67% of metropolitan New York stations on Friday, that figure plummeted to 38% on Saturday, according to the federal agency's estimates.

Still, sizable pockets of out-of-work gas stations remain -- as do scenes of drivers in New York and New Jersey waiting at length at places where it is available.

Leah Cepeda-Winfield said that, around 3 a.m. Saturday, people were sleeping in their cars outside gas stations in Suffolk County on New York's Long Island. About eight hours later, lines were still about a quarter-mile long.

"It seems that these long lines are everywhere you go," said Cepeda-Winfield, a CNN iReporter.

President Obama echoed the states' priorities during remarks at FEMA headquarters Saturday -- restoring power, pumping out water, covering people's basic needs, and removing debris.

"What I told the governors and the mayors is what I've been saying to my team since the start of this event: ... We don't have any patience for bureaucracy, we don't have any patience for red tape, and we want to make sure that we are figuring out a way to get to yes, as opposed to no, when it comes to these problems," Obama said.

The 900-mile-wide superstorm left a huge swath of damage when it hit the Northeast this week, claiming at least 106 lives in the United States and two in Canada after earlier killing 67 around the Caribbean.

Worst-hit New York state suffered 48 deaths, including 41 in New York City, authorities said. Twenty of those were in Staten Island.

As communities grapple with the human toll, the price of the damage is stunning: between $30 billion and $50 billion, according to disaster modeling firm Eqecat. That far exceeds the firm's pre-storm estimate of $20 billion.

Officials on Saturday were able to cheer progress on several fronts though. With one small exception, the Port of New York and New Jersey is now open to all vessels, the Coast Guard said. All water has been removed from the once-flooded World Trade Center work site, said Cuomo. Nearly $28 million in federal disaster emergency grants have been allocated across nine counties, the governor added.

Still, as millions will attest, the headaches are far from over. And they could grow, with a weaker storm expected to hit the region next week.

But Christie, for one, isn't ready for that quite yet.

"I know there are some forecasts of a Nor'easter next week," the governor said. "I can't believe it."

CNN's Faith Karimi, David Ariosto, Erinn Cawthon, Henry Hanks and Maria White contributed to this report.

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